• The San Juan Daily Star

Guaynabo mayor’s arrest for corruption rocks NPP, island

Guaynabo Mayor Ángel Pérez Otero

By The Star Staff

In a development that convulsed the New Progressive Party and Puerto Rico, FBI agents on Thursday arrested Guaynabo Mayor Ángel Pérez Otero, who is also president of the Mayors Federation, on charges of conspiracy, soliciting a bribe, and extortion.

In a separate operation, the FBI also arrested Radamés Benítez Cardona, the executive assistant to the mayor of Trujillo Alto, on charges of conspiracy, soliciting a bribe, and extortion. The incidents sent shockwaves through the government, which had already seen former Cataño Mayor Félix Delgado Montalvo plead guilty to charges of corruption.

Along with a video of the arrests early Thursday, FBI agents also released a tape showing Pérez Otero, a former House representative and now suspended Guaynabo mayor, taking cash inside a vehicle from an FBI cooperating witness, presumably Oscar Javier Santamaría Torres. Radamés Benítez Cardona, the executive assistant to Trujillo Alto Mayor José Luis Cruz Cruz, was photographed taking cash from soon-to-be convicted contractor Raymond Rodríguez Santos.

The videos were released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico, which decided to support a request for the imposition of a $50,000 bail for each of those arrested Thursday morning.

“Like everyone in Puerto Rico, I am disappointed and extremely upset by the arrest that has just taken place against the mayor of Guaynabo, Ángel Pérez,” Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said. “In the face of a federal accusation of corruption, there is no valid affiliation or friendship. The obligation to maintain the highest level of behavior touches us all equally. Given this serious situation, I demand that he leave the position of mayor immediately, as well as the presidency of the Mayors Federation and any leadership position in the NPP.”

The Puerto Rico Mayors Federation is the body that groups NPP mayors on the island.

The governor warned that any public official who has committed an act like the one committed by Pérez Otero, or who is considering it, should immediately leave the party and the government.

Also reported as being under investigation in relation to similar kickback schemes are former Cidra mayor Javier Carrasquillo, who is the governor’s current adviser for municipal affairs; former Naguabo Mayor Noé Marcano; and the Trujillo Alto mayor, Cruz Cruz.

The indictment against Pérez Otero alleges that he was involved in a bribery conspiracy in which, from late 2019 through May 2021, he received and accepted $5,000 cash payments on a regular basis from Individual A, presumably Santamaría Torres. In exchange for those payments, the mayor agreed to obtain and retain contracts for Company A (a construction company) and ensured that Company A’s invoices were promptly paid. The indictment alleges that Individual A regularly met in secret with Pérez Otero to pay cash bribes and kickbacks to the Guayabo mayor.

“As I have said before, we will not allow this kind of behavior to go unpunished. Public corruption is one of the FBI’s top priorities and today’s arrests highlight the FBI’s commitment to hold accountable those who violate the people’s trust,” said Joseph González, the special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Puerto Rico. “I can’t stress enough how crucial cooperation from the public is to the developments of these cases and therefore, anyone with information on public corruption schemes is highly encouraged to report it. As always, I’d like to thank our local state and federal partners for their contributions to this case and their continued support for the FBI mission.”

A second indictment returned Wednesday by a grand jury alleges that beginning in or around June of 2017, Benítez Cardona enriched himself by accepting bribes and kickbacks from Individual A and Individual B in exchange for securing municipal contracts for Company A as opportunities arose. The indictment alleges that Individual B negotiated a bribe and kickback scheme with defendant Benítez Cardona on behalf of Individual A. The scheme required Individual A to pay a $0.75 per house monthly kickback to defendant Benítez Cardona in connection with Trujillo Alto municipal contract 2018-000004, awarded to Company A for trash pickup. The monthly kickback amounted to some $17,250 for 23,000 houses. Individual B also gave Benítez Cardona an upfront payment of some $200,000 on behalf of Individual A to ensure that Company A received the waste disposal contract with the Municipality of Trujillo Alto.

“The constituents of these defendants entrusted them with serving their communities with honesty and integrity -- instead they participated in the alleged illegal schemes and used their positions for personal gain,” said W. Stephen Muldrow, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico. “Public officials who fail to faithfully discharge the duties of their office, and those who conspire with them, will be investigated, prosecuted, and punished for their actions.”

The investigations were conducted by the FBI’s San Juan Field Office. The cases are being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Ryan R. Crosswell of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Scott H. Anderson and Nicholas W. Cannon of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.

After his release on a $10,000 bail imposed by Magistrate Bruce McGiverin, Pérez Otero told reporters that “it is a very difficult day.” He was represented by attorneys Osvaldo Carlo and José Olmo. The plea hearing was scheduled for Dec. 23.

The conspiracy charges carry a sentence of five years in jail while the bribery charges carry sentences of between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Pérez Otero, 51, began his political career as president of the NPPYouth, and then as vice president of the party in Guaynabo.

He was first elected to the House of Representatives in the 2004 general election. He represented District 6. He was reelected in 2008.

In a special election to replace Héctor O’Neill in 2017, he was elected mayor of Guaynabo.

Pérez Otero is married to former fellow representative and senator Liza Fernández, who was appointed by then-Gov. Luis Fortuño in 2012 as a Superior Court judge.

The leading government procurement official, Karla Mercado, said Thursday that contracts with the firms JR Asphalt, Waste Collection and Max Law as suppliers of services to the central government and municipalities were cancelled.

“Having gained official knowledge of the federal accusations issued against the directors of the companies and by virtue of the responsibility of ensuring the proper use of the people’s money that is conferred on me by Act 73 of 2019, the General Services Administration, which I am honored to lead, has excluded the Max Law, JR Asphalt and Waste Collection corporations from the Single Registry of Bidders of the Government of Puerto Rico,” Mercado said in a written statement.

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